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Civil Rights Groups Fight Solitary Confinement

PHOENIX (CN) - Two civil rights groups urged Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer to stop plans to build 500 new maximum-security beds for prisoners in solitary confinement.

The ACLU of Arizona and the American Friends Service Committee have collected more than 2,500 signatures on a petition in their "Arizona is MAXED Out" campaign against the new prison beds.

The Arizona Legislature last year approved taking $50 million from a federal mortgage crisis settlement fund and spend it on the prison beds.

"Although the plan to build these 500 beds has been quietly moving forward, Arizonans are clearly saying they do not think this is a good move for the state," AFSC program coordinator Matthew Lowen said in a statement. "We are calling on the governor to halt the construction process, and for the Legislature to reject additional spending for this facility and do what is right and necessary to prevent additional needless human suffering."

According to the AFSC report , "Lifetime Lockdown: How Isolation Conditions Impact Prisoner Security," Arizona's prisoner-suicide rate is 60 percent higher than the national average, and most suicides take place in long-term solitary confinement units.

The Arizona Department of Corrections houses 2,076 prisoners in its "three supermax facilities in two different prison complexes: Secure Management Unit (SMU) I and Browning Unit in the Eyman Complex for men, and the Lumley SMA in the Perryville Complex for women," according to the AFSC report.

Thirty-five percent of the prisoners in the units were convicted of nonviolent crimes; all Death Row prisoners are also held in the supermax units.

Latinos account for 51 percent of supermax prisoners in Arizona, compared to 41 percent of the general prison population. American Indian men make up less than 5 percent of Arizona's general prison population but 9 percent of its supermax prisoners, according to the report.

The AFSC says mentally ill prisoners are "placed in supermax facilities at a greater rate than other prisoners; once there, the extreme and prolonged isolation exacerbates pre-existing conditions and causes mental illness in persons who were not previously ill."

More than 30 percent of prisoners in Arizona's solitary confinement units are mentally ill, but the number may be as high as 50 percent due to underreporting of mental illness.

In Mississippi, the state's supermax prison population was reduced by almost 90 percent, from 1,000 to 150 men. The state closed the unit in 2010, saving $8 million per year.

Maine reduced its prisoners in solitary confinement from 91 in 2010 to 46. Now the state sends fewer prisoners to solitary confinement and they spend less time there.

"Across the country, states are making the wise decision to reduce the use of solitary confinement - at the same time saving millions and reducing violence in the prisons," ACLU of Arizona director Alessandra Soler said. "Inexplicably, Arizona continues to take a backward approach to prison management and solitary confinement."

Nationwide, there are 80,000 prisoners in solitary confinement.

The ACLU of Arizona filed a federal class action in March 2012, claiming Arizona subjects prisoners to "unnecessary pain and suffering, preventable injury, amputation, disfigurement, and death" due to "grossly inadequate" medical care.

The lawsuit is pending.

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